Reviewed by Jen Pearson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:10 (#351) in October 2011.]
To determine whether you would enjoy Enigmatic Pilot by Kris Saknussemm, answer the first two of five questions I will be posing in this review: (1) How much machinery do you like in your fantasy? And, (2) Do you like alternative histories? If your answer to the first is “a lot” and your answer to the second is “yes,” then you may enjoy this novel more than I did. Having never read steampunk, I can’t say with certainty that Enigmatic Pilot is an example of that phenomenon, but I wasn’t far into this novel before it occurred to me that I was reading an American rural frontier version of steampunk. This didn’t put me off particularly. I knew it wasn’t going to be sword and sorcery.
The cover blurb mentioned characters named Haphaestus and Rapture, redolent with allusion. Their child is billed as “sexually precocious,” which I took as a hint of his being cupid-like, though his name is Lloyd. A preliminary chapter suggests the possibility of the novel engaging in some social or political criticism of our present century, which also piqued my interest. However, if there was any additional criticism of that sort, I missed it.
Haphaestus is fairly Vulcanish, with a club foot, blacksmith skills and a yen for inventing, but Rapture never strikes me as a representation of Venus or as a personification of the salvation of the righteous at the end of the world. While Lloyd is way ahead of his age group sexually, he isn’t very cupid-like. His passion is mainly for machines. Cupid created mischief by making people desire others or fall in love. Lloyd’s mischief involves inventing, and all the sexual desire involves himself as one of the participants rather than inspiring it between others.
Which brings us to another qualifying question: (3) Do you think an adult woman would find the erection of a six-year-old sexually exciting? If, like me, your reaction is along the lines of “you’ve got to be kidding” or “this is not the fantasy I signed up for,” then you can expect to have your willing suspension of disbelief occasionally abused in this novel. The sexuality in it is very phallocentric. A woman (or adolescent girl) sees an erection and is immediately likewise aroused and will cover it with her corresponding part or invite insertion.
However, perhaps the gadgetry will enchant another reader enough to overlook such bumps in the road. Lloyd’s mechanical genius and the mechanical mysteries he learns about are what drive the story. Lloyd’s genius makes him an object of interest to two underground groups who want to tempt him to use it to their own ends. He endeavors to remain free of the designs of others while still harboring an intense curiosity about the mysterious devices he sees or hears about in relation to these groups and other fringe groups he encounters.
Saknussem also appears to enjoy the historical period. Sometimes this results in good scene-building, and sometimes it degenerates into long lists of trade items. I often got the impression the author was trying to prove to me his extensive knowledge of the period, just as some fantasy writers will become overly specific about swordplay to prove they’ve done their research. The only advantage to this excess of detail for me is that skipping over paragraphs of such dross gives me the impression I’m a faster reader than I am. But I prefer novels that keep me reading every word and thus engaged in the story and unconscious of how fast time is progressing in the real world.
Saknussem makes good use of the general instability of this period with its riverboat gambling, religious inventiveness and vigilantism to create interesting encounters. Yet this too sometimes becomes a weakness. The novel feels very episodic. Individual scenes are rendered well but there’s little feeling of direction overall. The family sets out from Ohio to join Lloyd’s uncle in Oklahoma. The uncle hints he has found something amazing and wonderful. The parents are largely incompetent and thus in continual
financial distress that creates repeated stagnation on their journey. I have no idea why Saknussem chose to do this. To give the child Lloyd repeated opportunities to save the day with his inventiveness? One instance would have been enough for me.
The story drags and in the end we aren’t rewarded by finally getting to where we were supposedly going or resolving any of the mysteries — none of them. Instead, five pages before the book’s faux end (it’s part one of a series) the narration switches from third person omniscient to first person. The transition is reminiscent of cartoons in which we suddenly see a pen or pencil and pull back to see the illustrator, who then talks to the cartoon character about what it’s doing on the page. And so in these last few pages, Lloyd is co-opted by the omniscient narrator who is essentially saying, “Sorry, pal, but this next part requires the Big Kahuna.” All things remain the same in the story except that Lloyd is no longer who others in the story think he is. The narrator is using him as a disguise. So the penultimate qualifying question is, (4) Do you like metafiction in your fantasy? And the last question: (5) Do you like being cued to gasp, “Golly, I wasn’t expecting that,” while the author pats himself on the back for his guile, imagining he has hooked you for the next book? I don’t — especially when I’m really thinking, “Oh brother!” (and not out of familial affection).
As is now clear, this is the first of who knows how many books. If it had announced itself as such, I probably wouldn’t have read it. I assumed it was a standalone novel and that everything on the back cover blurb would transpire within its 360-odd pages. Instead, readers are only introduced to one of the “two secret societies” supposedly in an “arcane dispute,” which is never made clear. Lloyd doesn’t appear to have any firm “ideas” of his own regarding the societies (and isn’t even Lloyd any more). While he has discovered seemingly magical objects toward the end of the book, it’s unclear whether this is the “occult technology” referred to in the blurb. For me, this resulted in disappointment rather than continued intrigue. I don’t trust the author to deliver the goods and don’t intend to read book two.